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June 2, 2020

Film review: ‘Nothin’ No Better’ takes us into the heart of the Mississippi Delta

Filmmakers Ben and Bo Powell received a grant from the Austin Film Society to make their documentary portrait of a small Mississippi town

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“Nothin’ No Better,” the new documentary about Rosedale, Mississippi, is full of subtlety.

There’s no narration, just a conglomeration of residents of the Delta town, both white and black, going about their daily business and telling co-directors Ben and Bo Powell a little bit — but not much — about their lives.

And sometimes the town residents don’t really have to say anything other than their names. That’s case with Mr. and Mrs. John Lafayette Pearson III, with the wife announcing her husband’s name before sitting down beneath the chandelier in the parlor to play on the grand piano, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” And before the recital is complete, the camera blends into another scene of a black teenager sitting in a decidedly less formal room on a disheveled couch.

Anyone from the area would know that the Pearsons are one of the Delta’s oldest families — filled with a long line of lawyers, legislators and judges. They stand out in Rosedale because of their wealth — and because of the rather humble lives of the other residents. So there’s no need to be tacky and talk about it. So the filmmakers don’t. They wisely show, not tell.

We see a cafe that serves tamales, and, yes, Rosedale is known for its hot tamales, for its blues history and for bluesman Robert Johnson having sold his soul to the devil here.

We also see the Gospel Temple, a black church with a six-member choir, a pianist and a drummer. We see lots of tinfoil for cooking on the backyard grill. We see lots of hounds.

And we see a man emerging from a dumpster. But the first impressions are clearly that Rosedale is a dying town — not a rarity for rural Mississippi.

But there’s also hope. We see young black kids getting after school lessons sponsored by the Rosedale Freedom Project, which attempts to bolster educational opportunities. And it’s rather clear that some folks feel comfortable and at home in Rosedale, that they form a community.

On occasion, the film feels more like a series of portraitures rather than a documentary. Those feelings are reinforced when the Powell brothers secret up a white sheet and ask various subjects to pose before it. The subjects apparently are comfortable with the setup, and it probably helps that the Powells grew up in the nearby town of Cleveland. They know the patterns of life and the customs.

Ben Powell now lives in East Austin and had his first film, “Barge,” at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival. That documentary explored life on a barge going up and down the Mississippi River. His brother Bo lives in New York City, where he works for the Bravo TV network.

The Powells received a $5,000 grant from the Austin Film Society to help make “Nothin’ No Better.”

The film is streaming through May 31 on the Austin Film Society’s website, www.austinfilm.org, where you can also find a video interview with the Powell brothers.

“Nothin’ No Better”
Starring the citizens of Rosedale, Mississippi
Running time: 64 minutes

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin Americaan-Statesman.

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